How Cloning May Cure Diseases One Day

Decades ago creating clones existed only in the pages of science fiction. Today, cloning is a booming area of scientific research with the potential to better treat human disease. An animal that is a clone is an exact copy of the animal that donated its genetic information (DNA) for its creation. In oncology, the term is also used to describe a single-family or type of cancer cells. Scientists can also clone human genes.

Veterinarian holding two small puppies
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The Cloning Process

Cells contain DNA. In simple terms, to make a clone, DNA is removed from one of its cells. This DNA is placed in an egg cell of a female animal. The clone egg is then placed in the female animal's womb to grow and develop. This is a very complex scientific procedure, and it is difficult to be successful with it. Most clone animals die before birth. Even after birth, cloned animals may face more health issues than average as well as a shorter life expectancy. 

The first cloned animal was a sheep, named Dolly, born in 1996. Since then there have been many other clone animals including mice, cats, goats, pigs, cows, and monkeys. There are no human clones, although the technology to do so likely exists. Cloning humans is a very controversial topic.

Using Cloning to Eradicate Disease

A gene is a specific section of DNA. Scientists can clone genes by transferring them from one organism to another and getting them to replicate. This is called DNA cloning or recombinant DNA technology.

Making a clone of a human embryo is the most controversial type of cloning. Called therapeutic cloning, its purpose is to create human embryos for research. Many people are opposed to this type of cloning because human embryos are destroyed during the research.

One of the most promising areas of research is stem cell therapeutics. In 2013, scientists at Oregon Health & Science University were the first to clone embryos to make stem cells. Stem cells are considered valuable in medicine because they have the ability to become any type of cell.

For example, if you developed kidney disease and needed a new kidney. A family member might be a close enough match that they could donate a kidney or you might get lucky and find an organ donor elsewhere. However, there is a chance that your body could reject the organ. Anti-rejection medication drugs can lower that chance, but they will also lower your immune system.

Stem cells have the ability to solve the organ rejection problem. Because stem cells can turn into any type of cell, they can be used to create the organs or tissue that you need, using your own cells. Since the cells are your own, your body would be less likely to attack them like as if they were foreign cells. While stem cells hold a lot of potential, the difficulty in getting the cells remains. Stems cells are the most bountiful in embryos. These cells can also be harvested from umbilical cords as well as some tissues in the adult body.

The Challenges of the Process

Adult stem cells are harder to harvest and may have less potential than embryonic stem cells. The challenge then becomes how to create embryonic stem cells for adults. This is where researchers at the Oregon University of Health & Science come in. Their work used donated human embryos, removed the egg's DNA, and then replaced it with DNA taken from adult skin cells.

The laboratory then used a combination of chemicals and electrical pulses to get the embryo to grow and develop stem cells. These stem cells could then be used, in theory, to create organs and tissues for the person who donated their skin cell DNA. While this research is very promising, cloning embryos for stem cells remain highly controversial.

3 Sources
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  1. Sinclair KD, Corr SA, Gutierrez CG, et al. Healthy ageing of cloned sheep. Nat Commun. 2016;7:12359. doi:10.1038/ncomms12359

  2. Ayala FJ. Cloning humans? Biological, ethical, and social considerations. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015;112(29):8879-86. doi:10.1073/pnas.1501798112

  3. Tachibana M, Amato P, Sparman M, et al. Human embryonic stem cells derived by somatic cell nuclear transfer. Cell. 2013;153(6):1228-38. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2013.05.006

By Mary Kugler, RN
Mary Kugler, RN, is a pediatric nurse whose specialty is caring for children with long-term or severe medical problems.